Archive for An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Sun damage

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2021 by dcairns

I recall feeling slightly unconvinced by those sections of the (excellent) novel Sunnyside where author Glen David Gold tries to get inside Chaplin’s creative process, but I think I was probably being unfair. Gold talks us through Chaplin’s rejected ideas, and they all sound pretty terrible. Shouldn’t even the non-starters of a genius be somewhat impressive? But looking at SUNNYSIDE the movie, no, perhaps they shouldn’t. Bits of it are very good but bits of it are worse than the ideas Gold has Chaplin throw out.

The L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun dream-ballet isn’t the worst thing in there. It’s inoffensive. But it has no narrative reason for being there. Other Chaplin dreams happen when he’s heartbroken and so they have at least a claim on poignancy. Here, he’s merely downtrodden — a dream of the easy life would make sense, but not this capering around with Grecian nymphets.

Anyway, the wake-up is decently staged. Charlie falls off the same bridge in dream he fell off in reality, whereupon the woodland sylphs toss him a creeper or something and attempt to pull him back up. Upon awakening, he finds himself jolted back to reality and the bridge by a crowd of Sunnysiders, and then sent packing with multiple boots up the arse by the Boss.

“And now, the ‘romance’.” says an intertitle, throwing off a palpable sense of exhaustion and formulaic will-this-do? Rushing up to a house, dodging Henry Bergman, who he just passed on the road as a different character (beard), Charlie plucks some flowers and goes in to see Edna. Also present is “His brother, Willie,” for some reason. Willie is characterised as a village idiot type in overalls, staring into space and smiling while Charlie raps on his forehead. It would seem more logical for him to be Edna’s sibling since he’s in her house, but I think Charlie wants the license to mistreat him… that’s the best reason I can think of for what follows.

Since the boy is being a gooseberry, Charlie invites him to play blind man’s bluff — binding his eyes and sending him outside, where he is imperilled by traffic. David Robinson says this as an interesting experiment in black comedy, I just find it obnoxious. It’s further evidence of Chaplin’s creative crisis, since he’s usually careful to seem sympathetic, at least since the Mutual period.

Still, this undercuts the fairly anemic romance stuff. Charlie presents Edna with an engagement ring, and sings mutely as she plays piano. Then he attempts a gag that would work better as a variation in MONSIEUR VERDOUX — finding a flat note, Charlie excites a tiny goat living behind the piano (!) which baahs each time he hits the note, causing him to think the piano is making goat bleats. This is quite funny but, though you don’t need the sounds to understand it, it would be funnier with the sounds.

The gag develops smartly: a much larger goat appears, and Charlie is even more confused. The goat can also eat the sheet music which isn’t as clever but it’s logical.

Moderately funny business back at the hotel with Charlie cleaning up: picking up tiny invisible specks of dirt and carrying them to a single place.

Enter Tom Terriss as a young man in spats — “the city chap.” SUNNYSIDE as distaff version of SUNRISE. He enters the movie crashing his car into Sunnyside. He’s carried into the hotel by the fat boy, who is, it seems, Tom Wood and not J. Park Jones as previously reported. And Charlie innocently tries to get the comatose city chap to sign the register.

The village doctor arrives, a fake beard in pince-nez and a derby, his gladstone bag bulging with booze and, disturbingly, handcuffs. I think the normally clear line between first aid kit and rape kit is getting blurrier than desirable. As he takes City Chap’s pulse on screen right, Charlie mimics him screen left, using the victim’s own fob watch. Best bit of mime: having briefly held the watch in his mouth, Charlie gives it a theatrical shake in an exact reproduction of classic thermometer business. The doctor then presents his bill, after merely taking the pulse and kneading the patient’s shoulder in a vaguely sympathetic manner. (Like the village idiot actor, the doctor is unidentified on IMDb but I’d say it’s Albert Austin under the whiskers.)

Very routine bit with Charlie mopping the lobby while three random guys are sitting in it. Yes, he turns with the mop and wetly knocks hats off. That kind of business. “City chap fully recovered,” reports an intertitle, unnecessarily. These cards have the dutiful tone of a child’s book report. City chap (who has the same initials as Chaplin) has a lighter built into his cane. Which is kind of cool. Charlie is impressed.

In a cutaway shot, Edna gets her fingers stuck in some fly paper — a rare (unique?) example of her getting a solo gag, though it develops in such a conventional way it scarcely qualifies. Similarly, the business of her forgetting what she came to the hotel to buy (it’s also a general store) and Charlie offering suggestions from his shelves unfolds without kicking loose any real comedy at all. OK, him wrapping the final item — enormous woolly socks — in a huge paper cone as if it were a bouquet of flowers, is sort of amusing. All this is just to effect a meet uncute with the city chap, who watches with more interest than I could muster. Edna is dressed like an old lady again, further stressing the resemblance of this movie to a much earlier period of Chaplin’s career.

Charlie gets Edna’s paper money stuck to the fly paper, which is quite a good gag, but it’s cut short — I think we want to see him picking the banknote to little shreds to bring home the hopelessness of the situation.

Seeing Edna strolling amiably with the chap, Charlie performs a head-clutching gesture of operatic despair, I think the biggest and lamest reaction I’ve seen from him. No doubt he’s thinking of how he felt when he caught her with Thomas Meighan. But it’s too much for the film, the situation and the genre. Sitting down and resting his head, Charlie prepares the ground for a second dream sequence. [Iris in.]

Now Charlie prances up to Edna’s house to bring her flowers and sing with her, but finds the city chap already installed at the pianoforte. A musical cuckold, Charlie gazes through the window (the overheard music perhaps recalls Charlie’s experience in childhood of being passionately transfixed by a rendition of “You are the honeysuckle, I am the bee” caught as he passed by a window). Edna gazes blankly at the lighter-cane as if it held some mesmeric power. The lovers smile coyly over a photo album. Much of the comedy in this film is rote, but absolutely all the romance is, a likely result of Chaplin’s loveless marriage following fairly quickly on the break-up with Edna.

Charlie attempts to copy the c. chap’s elegant ways, fashioning crude spats from a pair of the woolly socks (a loose thread spoils the effect) and installing a candlestick on his cane (it blazes with the same inextinguishable fervour as the one Harpo produces from his mackintosh in HORSE FEATHERS, burning at both ends — that would impress me if I were Edna).

Walter Kerr identifies the pathos here as operating on the same unsuccessful level as that in THE TRAMP, but I think it’s much worse. Charlie’s self-pity isn’t affecting whatsoever, whereas his illiterate note in the Essanay film is genuinely pitiable even if the tonal shift isn’t managed well at all. His everlasting candle a wash-out, Charlie crouches on a country road with fingers in ears, awaiting extirpation by an approaching auto. A sudden jolt — the boss kicking him out of his chair — brings him back to reality. His rejection by Edna was all a jealous dream, brought on by seeing her chatting with chap.

Coda: the chap is checking out. He tips his hat to Edna but she turns her back on him sniffily. What on earth has happened between them during Charlie’s dream? Seeing Edna, Charlie rushes to embrace her in an awkward stranglehold, makes to punch the city chap for offences committed during R.E.M. sleep, then gratefully receives a tip from him for carrying his bags three feet to the waiting car. City chap departs and Charlie and Edna embrace.

Critics and scholars have apparently argued about whether the heartbreak leading up to suicide is a dream, or whether the happy ending is the dream, flashing through Charlie’s mind in a split second as he’s mangled by the onrushing jalopy. While that would be cleverer, more unusual and better, making the film a slapstick version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, it’s absolutely plain that the more prosaic version was Chaplin’s intended reading. The dream is cued up by Charlie resting his head, and he awakens from the same posture. The reason for the confusion is the film’s awkward shape, with TWO longish dream sequences, and the other problem identified by Walter Kerr: while Chaplin often creates poignancy by having his character dream of idyllic happiness (heaven, bread rolls, etc) when he’s miserable in reality, here he dreams of a scenario much worse than his real life situ. But this is perhaps excusable — we DID get the reason Charlie thinks he’s washed up with Edna, right before he went to sleep. So it’s motivated, it’s just not very effective or interesting or amusing or touching.

SUNNYSIDE is pretty fascinating as an example of mature Chaplin operating without inspiration, judgement thrown off, forced to release a film that simply hasn’t gelled. Mysteriously, he called it a favourite film in his 1922 memoir, but dismissed it later. During shooting he toyed with abandoning it in favour of another, equally amorphous and unpromising notion, but he’d invested too much time in it for that option to fly.

The crisis would continue through the next short — I can hardly wait. And you?

Playbook

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by dcairns

I read all Richard Stark’s Parker novels a couple of years back, all except The Hunter, AKA Point Blank AKA Payback, because I know the John Boorman film of it quite well and didn’t want deja vu. But I’m on a Donald Westlake kick at the moment and momentarily ran out of paperbacks, and so started on this one at long last — because Richard Stark was Donald Westlake’s other nom de plume, used for most of his more hardboiled stuff.

Comparing book to film is pretty interesting — a lot of the more Westlake-like “break into a fortress” plotting proves to be original to the movie, which suggests to me that one of other of screenwriters Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse had read some later Stark.

The book is fascinating because you can feel Stark and Parker becoming themselves as it goes on. To begin with, Parker is over-described with an eagerness to impress that is a little embarrassing compared to the laconic style so effective in the later works. (Although this is great: “His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.”) And he’s not too professional: he gets drunk, and he goes on a mission of vengeance. It’s only in part 5 of 5 that he decides what he really wants is the return of the money he stole and that was stolen from him. This means the book lacks the singular drive that Brian DePalma admires so much in Boorman’s film: “This whole film is GIVE ME BACK MY MONEY!”

It’s fascinating how the movie develops intriguing suggestions from the novel. There are various lines about Parker’s having come back from the dead — Boorman, something of a mystic, seizes on this to take the story partway into Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge — Boorman told Michel Ciment that both his Lee Marvin movies might be happening in the lead character’s mind as he experiences his own death. And the impression that Parker/Walker (as he’s named in the film, a suggestive, supernaturally-resonant name) brings death to those around him by his mere presence — this springs from the first casualty of the novel, Parker’s wife, who he doesn’t kill but who dies because of him. Subsequently everyone thinks he killed her and he doesn’t bother to disabuse them of the notion. The movie seems to take all this into consideration and folds it together with old Michael Curtiz/Boris Karloff gangster/horror flick THE WALKING DEAD, in which Boris literally does rise from the dead and cause his enemies to perish without laying a finger on them.

“She’s dead. So is your fat pansy. You can be dead too, if you want.”

Stegman licked his lips. He turned his head and nodded at the small stone buildings out at the end of the pier. “There’s people there,” he said. “All I got to do is holler.”

“You’d never get it out. Take a deep breath and you’re dead. Open your mouth wide and you’re dead.”

Stegman looked back at him. “I don’t see no gun,” he said. “I don’t see no weapon.”

Parker held up his hands. “”You see two of them,” he said. “They’re all I need.”

“You’re out of your mind. It’s broad daylight. We’re in the front seat of a car. People see us scuffling -“

“There wouldn’t be any scuffle, Stegman. I’d touch you once, and you’d be dead. Look at me. You know this isn’t a bluff.”

The Boorman movie also enhances the whole Tarzan-Versus-IBM thing, with Parker as a primitive, out of step with modern, corporate crime. The stone age hero squaring off against decadent moderns also animated Boorman’s loony ZARDOZ. Lee Marvin’s man of violence is both a pitiable anachronism and, in Boorman’s eyes, infinitely purer (like the xenomorph in ALIEN) and more admirable than the blustering suits he braces.

Westlake/Stark’s indication that mob boss Carter looks like Ambassador Trentino, the walking fontanelle — “His resemblance to Louis Calhern was startling.” — is amusing, but was not picked up by the movie, which cast Lloyd Bochner.

Of course, the movie invents subsidiary characters as foils and expositional devices — Angie Dickinson is the Girl in the Picture, someone Walker can explain his plans to. Keenan “Bat Guano” Wynn as the Deep Throat figure who sets Walker in motion has a similar expository role, only he dispenses info rather than receiving it. These add-ons don’t do any harm, because none of them sentimentalize Walker or turn him into a chivalric outlaw with a code, as in the Jason Statham outing.

Oddly enough, once Westlake/Stark realized what he had in Parker, it wasn’t about violence at all — it was about a professional doing a job. Parker is a problem-solver, and what he does is not different than what his novelist did, only in Parker’s world the problems are solved physically, whereas for his author it was all a mental exercise. Good thing for us.

Ribbeting

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on January 11, 2012 by dcairns

Robert Enrico is best known, I guess, for his adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, entitled LA RIVIERE DU HIBOU — this was adopted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and screened in a truly appalling copy, ruining some of the loveliest b&w cinematography you’ll ever see. It’s also part of a trilogy of adaptations of Bierce’s macabre Civil War stories by Enrico, otherwise comprising versions of The Mockingbird and the horrifying Chickamauga, equally fine.

LA REDEVANCE DU FANTOME is a TV episode by Enrico, based closely on Henry James’ A Ghostly Rental — Enrico evokes the “spiritual blight” hanging over an abandoned house by way of an electronically enhanced frogs’ chorus of ribbets and chirrups. Splendidly eerie. Presumably in an effort to fill a time slot, he drags every scene out to breaking point, alas, giving even the viewer unfamiliar with his source plenty of time to figure out the Scooby Doo twist, but there are splendid moments along the way, and Marie Laforet sings us out — here is your daily allotment of the sublime. Do not exceed the stated dose.

NB — this is, technically, a spoiler, I suppose, since it’s the end of the film. But it’s not a narrative spoiler, imho.

Marie Laforet — if you have enjoyed this, check out her version of Paint It Black on TousTube.

And buy her stuff — 1963-1969